Islander puts a sweet twist on a beloved holiday comfort dish
Food, family and faith are cornerstones for Galveston resident Ericka Schwenk. This month, all three come together beautifully for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Originally from New Jersey, Schwenk spent much of her adult life in Illinois before moving to Galveston five years ago. Known as a good and generous cook, she loves eating, trying new recipes and sharing delicious dishes with her family, friends and colleagues, she said.
“I love Jewish and Italian food, which makes sense because food and family are so important to both,” she said. “We want to feed everyone and always worry there isn’t enough food, even when there’s way too much.”
Jewish holidays are a special time for this former Sunday school teacher who loves cooking traditional feasts with food rich in flavor and symbolism. Rosh Hashanah means the “head of the new year” and is the beginning of a time of celebration culminating in Yom Kippur a week later.
“Rosh Hashanah is a time of reflection, a time to think about the year past and the year to come,” she said. “There are some traditional staples we always have on our table. We have apples and honey for a sweet year ahead and our challah bread is round instead of rectangle to symbolize no beginning and no end. We also have wine for a sweet year and light candles as an offering to God.”
Another staple for the High Holidays is kugel, an egg noodle side dish, particularly popular after fasting during Yom Kippur.
“It’s a real comfort food like lasagna, but without meat,” Schwenk said. “You can make it sweet with ricotta and raisins or savory with noodles and potatoes. It’s pretty high in carbs, but then there’s no keto-friendly, low-carb Jewish anything.”
Every cook puts their own twist on kugel, and Schwenk likes to make a sweet version.
“I like to season it with cinnamon and sugar,” she said. “It is a simple recipe and it goes a long way, which is important as we often have 20 to 30 people to break the fast after Yom Kippur, just like a big Thanksgiving celebration. I describe kugel as Jewish soul food because it’s comfort food and the recipes are always the sort where you add a pinch of this and a pinch of that.”
Schwenk had several cooking mentors, starting with her mother who taught her to cook. Friends made through her faith, including a Jewish chef who wrote his own cookbook, furthered her cooking education, but mostly she likes to experiment with new recipes or take inspiration from favorite restaurant meals, she said.
As a child, Schwenk was a picky eater, so when she raised her four children — Joey, Emilie, Danny and Annie — she was happy to accommodate their preferences, she said. Now adults, they often call her to ask for recipes and they’re still influencing her cooking as she incorporates more vegetarian options into her feasts.
“My bookend children were the most interested in cooking and would always be my helpers in the kitchen, especially for the holidays,” she said. “My husband, Joe, never cooks, although he does make a good meat sauce. We’ve been married 32 years and he still loves everything I make.”
Ericka Schwenk’s Noodle Kugel
1 pound wide egg noodles
2 (8-ounce) packets cream cheese, softened
1 pound (16 ounces) ricotta (You can substitute full fat creamed cottage cheese.)
1½ cups sugar
1 stick butter, melted, plus more for greasing the baking dish
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup golden raisins
Preheat oven to 350 F. Grease a
9-by-13-inch glass baking dish.
Parboil the noodles (5 to 7 minutes) and drain them in a colander.
In a very large bowl, beat cream cheese until fluffy, add cottage cheese and beat for another minute. Scrape the bowl down well. Add sugar and combine, then add butter, and scrape down bowl another time. Add the eggs one at a time, beating between additions. Add cinnamon, vanilla and mix. Then stir in golden raisins. Finally, carefully mix in the drained egg noodles.
Pour into baking dish and bake for
1 hour before checking whether center is set. It may need up to 30 minutes more. (“I know this is crazy, but I have cooked kugels that took either end of the range,” Schwenk said. “They refuse to be predictable.”)